I sometimes take for granted that I live in Florida and can garden year-round, so when we moved into our new house this February and the first thing I did was build my garden, it didn’t seem odd to me that the rest of the country was gardening snow and frozen dirt. Since I was about 3 years old, I have been obsessed with gardening. It started with my great Uncle John who had this incredible vegetable garden next to my grandmother’s house. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, peppers, and lettuce. I was amazed at that age that something could grow out of the ground, be picked, and then eaten (and taste pretty darn good). Helping him with the garden was my favorite thing to do and I got the green thumb bug while most kids were still drooling on their shirts. Whether it was plodding around barefoot in the dirt for hours pulling weeds, picking fruits and vegetables or using the hose to water, I always felt like I tired myself out and really worked to help something grow.
Seeing my newfound affinity for agriculture, my parents were awesome and set up my own garden in our yard at home. Rather than buy me toys, my mom and dad were thrilled that I was enthralled with the idea of tending to my own garden (and staying out of their hair) during the summer months when school was out. We didn’t have much space, but my dad painstakingly ninja-ed a plot of our side yard into a 5 X 6 garden for me. Of course I wanted to grow enough food to supply the world, but since that wasn’t possible, a careful plan was devised to squeeze in as much as possible without crowding out the plants. “Megan’s Garden” was established in 1983, replete with my own little sign that hung on the fence. I had a plentiful array of tomatoes, cucumbers, dill, parsley, peas, peppers, eggplant, pumpkins, strawberries, zucchini, watermelons, pumpkins, summer squash, and basil. I even had enough produce at times to set up a little stand at the edge of our driveway and sell to passers-by. I cared for that garden more than I cared about anything else. I took my job as a farmer seriously and it was my responsibility to water, weed, cultivate, and harvest my garden. The sense of pride I had as I watched each little fruit and vegetable grow as a result of my efforts was the most satisfying feeling ever. As I got older, my dad handed over the tilling and composting to me. We even used the droppings and hay from my rabbit to create the most fertile compost pile where we could also recycle biodegradable scraps to add to the garden. No need for expensive fertilizers or pesticides – I made all of it. I even did all of my high school science projects focusing around my garden – one year, I discovered the best biodegradable planting medium to wrap around the root base to protect against frost and soil damage and then another year I found the perfect ratio of earthworms and castings per square garden foot to create the optimal nitrogen-rich soil (sort of like a self-fertilizing garden) so farmers could find a way to not depend on chemicals to keep their gardens healthy.
Over the next twenty years, “Megan’s Garden” flourished and existed at our little house on Long Island before my parents moved to Florida. During that time, it provided my family with tons of fresh fruits and vegetables and an ever-lasting love and appreciation for creating, tending to, and eating from a garden. Every single one of our meals was prepared with something(s) from the garden and my mom taught me different recipes to make using my ingredients. It seemed that many people we knew had gardens – my cousins had a huge garden, my neighbors had gardens, and it’s something that we all talked and cared about. We didn’t sit and watch TV over the summer – we were outside tending to our yards, gardens, and then tearing up the neighborhood. Even my friends and family who lived in apartment buildings (especially New York City) who had no yard of their own had vegetable gardens somewhere nearby in a communal area. In my twenties, I moved around every few years, but always planted some flowers and veggies no matter where I was – in pots of all shapes and sizes carefully lining whatever small plot of yard I had at each locale. No matter where you live, it’s 99% possible to grow a garden of some kind (even if it’s indoors and super small). Container gardens are becoming more and more popular as people are becoming aware of the importance of knowing where our food comes from. While gardening is limited to a short span of several months out of the year in many places throughout the world, don’t let that discourage you from creating your own, especially if you have children. Getting children involved in knowing where their food comes from and establishing a true “farm-to-table” mentality in your home is priceless. I look back on all that I learned and appreciated from having my own garden, which is why I made it one of the first priorities to establish one when we moved into our house this winter. My son Lucas comes out to our garden with me several times a day as I water, tend to, and harvest our food. While he’s only one, I talk about the shape, texture, and color of the vegetables while I explain what I am doing. He intently watches and then wants to play in the dirt (and I let him). I make kale smoothies every morning and Lucas loves them (thank God). While I wholeheartedly support the organic farming industry, I find it super awesome that I do not have to run to the store and spend money on kale and greens and vegetables every time I want to make something fresh.
While having a year-round garden may not be possible in your neck of the woods, having one for the spring, summer, and fall months is. You should definitely consider creating one – no matter how small or big, how simple or grand, or what’s growing in it. The benefits outweigh the negative factors. Here are some ideas if you are interested in starting your own. Remember, there is no perfect way to set up a garden – think about what YOU want and go from there. There are tons of resources online, as well as in books and at local garden stores. I was fortunate enough to talk to Bob the head farmer at Food and Thought Organic Market and Farm in Naples, FL (where I bought all of my heirloom organic seedlings and soil). He refreshed my gardening memory of what I should do to maintain a 100% organic garden, and one here in Florida, where the summers are brutal and tend to zap anything with living cells in it.
What I Started With:
– First, I realized I wanted to have a raised garden bed (where you use wood to outline a garden above already existing soil) so I had more control over the soil my plants were growing in. (This also saved from me having to bust my behind re-tilling all of the soil and hoping there were no traces of chemicals, etc. in the soil). We also have an irrigation system in our yard that uses reclaimed water, so I definitely did not want to be growing my food in soil that had God-knows-what water it for the past 8 years. After having the landscaping guy re-work my sprinklers to go nowhere my garden plot, I was ready to set up my bed.
– You want to make sure you chose a spot in your yard or wherever you’re planting that will receive sunlight for a minimum of 4 hours a day. Ideally, you want 6-8 hours a day. Also, if you are in a climate that is coming out of winter, this is the time to get going NOW. Most gardens can be started when the risk of frost is out of the forecast (well, at least for planting). You can get the soil ready once the ground isn’t frozen.
– With the joys of just moving in, I knew I did not have the patience or time to build my raised garden bed from scratch, while this would have saved me about $75. If you are adventurous and have a few extra hours to devote to it, here is a great website with free plans to build an awesome raised garden bed from scratch (p.s. This woman is DIY construction Wonder Woman and has incredible things on her site to create): http://ana-white.com/2010/05/hack-natural-rustic-cedar-raised-beds.html If you’re like me and wanted more of a ½ hour “voila” effect with little construction, Home Depot (or anywhere online, really) has an awesome selection. You can check out some ideas here: http://www.homedepot.com/webapp/catalog/servlet/Search?storeId=10051&langId=-1&catalogId=10053&keyword=raised+garden%20bed&Ns=None&Ntpr=1&Ntpc=1&selectedCatgry=Search+All
– Once your bed is constructed, now it’s time to add the soil. You can get all kinds of different organic soils to put in your garden (and I recommend organic because the other stuff is not regulated with what’s in it; many times, manufacturers use chemicals in the soils, which ultimately wind up in your food, and then in you = bad). I used a few bags of the organic soil from Home Depot as my base and then I bought a special organic blend from Food and Thought’s farm. Ideally, you can use a rich manure and compost mixture (more compost than manure). Here are some soil ideas for you: http://homeguides.sfgate.com/organic-soil-mix-vegetable-gardens-29452.html
Just make sure that the soil is not too heavy, for it will not allow proper drainage, and not too light and fluffy, as it will not stay around the roots. Making a mixture of the two is best.
– Once your soil is down (you want to make sure that in a raised bed, you have about 2 inches of space to spare from the top of the wood), create rows about 18 inches wide for your plantings. Creating rows allows for more effective irrigation and for you to walk through your garden without destroying plants. It also creates more soil space for your roots without filling the whole garden bed up with soil.
– When my rows were done, I was ready to plant. Starting with seedling plants is best (unless you are planting veggies like carrots or root veggies that need to start from seeds in the soil they’ll be in for good), as you have more control of knowing how your crops are doing. If you are starting with seeds, I recommend buying organic seeds and starting them in potting soil in little seed pots inside or you can even use empty egg cartons with potting soil. Make sure they have enough light and don’t overwater. Late winter is a great time to get seeds going indoors for spring planting. Here is a list of plants and the seasons/climates in which they do best:
I sprinkled some Garden Tone organic fertilizer atop the soil before planting. This is the only fertilizer I’d use: http://www.espoma.com/p_consumer/tones_garden.html
I spaced my seedlings out about 18 inches apart (depending on how big I knew each plant would get). If you are planting tomatoes, be sure to put a cage around them when they are small so they have something to grow into. Plant each seedling about 2-4 inches deep (enough so the roots are covered) and pat around the plant to make sure it’s stable.
– One of the most important things: BUY A HOSE THAT WILL BE USED FOR YOUR GARDEN THAT IS LEAD FREE! I bet many of you didn’t know most hoses are lined with lead. If you water with a traditional hose, you’re watering lead into your plants. Awesome. I bought an inexpensive hose at Costco; I am sure you can find them in many places. Just be sure it’s lead free. Also be aware of the water quality with which you’ll be watering your garden. Ideally would be using filtered water (some hose attachments can be equipped with a water filter that screws onto the spigot). Just be sure not to let reclaimed water or water from an unknown source touch your garden. Water your garden once all seedlings are planted. I use the “shower” setting on my nozzle, as I don’t want to blast all of the soil away from my plants. You can even use the “mist” setting and water from the soil level versus spraying a ton of water from above the plants. Soil level watering helps prevent the spread of insect and fungus contamination, and water settling on the leaves, which can cause issues depending on the quality of your water. Some people prefer “bleeder” hoses that slowly drip water out over a period of time so you don’t need to stand there watering. I chose not to use one of these, as watering my garden is something I like to do, for it lets me check out my plants and Lucas gets a kick out of putting his hands in the water. Be sure to water your garden every day if the soil dries out. If the soil is moist, don’t water, as you don’t want your plants to become water-logged. This can cause fungus and mold of the roots and leaves.
– From here on out, it’s more of a waiting game before the garden takes off (this can take about two weeks). With vegetables like lettuces and kale, picking promotes growth, so I would pick a leaf off a day (from the stem base, starting at the bottom of the plant). Just be sure to water the garden daily if needed and check for pests. Aphids (small green insects that live on the underside of the leaves) are common and annoying. Zap them with homemade insect killer.
NEVER USE CONVENTINAL INSECT KILLER/PESTICIDES! I also do not use conventional fertilizers (like Miracle Grow), as I feel they are not truly organic (and don’t you wonder what gives it that super natural electric blue color?!?! Yea, that’s going in your food). You have to remember that everything that touches your garden touches you, as you are eating this food. Keep an eye out to make sure the wind isn’t drifting weird forms of pollution onto your garden. Planting marigolds is a good way to naturally ward off pests, too. Their odor is unpleasant to insects.
Recipe for natural insect killer:
-In a blender, combine about 1 cup water, 1 clove garlic, chili (either hot pepper flakes or a chili pepper), and ½ onion. Blend until combined and put in a spray bottle, mixed with a few drops of natural soap like Seventh Generation (or a similar brand) and some more water. Mix and spray on plants and leaves up until day of harvest. This is totally safe and non-toxic. The soap is used as an agent to “stick” to the leaves.
-I fertilize once every 3 weeks and you may need to rebuild your rows/mounds, as daily watering can wear down the soil.
While this is just “my” version of how to set up a garden, there are tons of other ways, more resources, etc. out there that could work better for you. If you’re curious about other options, check out this article as a good place to start:
Whether you’re planting a tiny window garden or a massive farm in your yard, think about the endless memories and opportunities this will provide for you and your children. One of my heroes to the organic and sustainable farming movement is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in rural Virginia. I don’t even have enough time to write how awesome this man and his farm are. Check it out for yourself: http://www.polyfacefarms.com/
My dad passed away from brain cancer last May, and while it was one of the hardest times in my life I went through, creating my own garden again brought back all of the memories I have of when I was a kid and he and I would work together until the sun would go down making sure “Megan’s Garden” would be a hit. I’m sad he is not around to see the current “Megan’s Garden”, as I am sure he’d reminisce about many of the same memories from when I was young, but I am grateful I learned at such a young age of what it means to create and work hard for something we need and use. I hope to pass this on to my son Lucas, as I appropriately re-named my garden as the “Luke-Duke Garden” after Lucas and my father (everyone called him Duke). They may just be tomatoes and cucumbers to everyone else, but to me, they represent a legacy of something that everyone should be able to experience at some point in their life.